April 17, 2013

Legends in their own backyard

For a number of Australian greats down the years, cricket has begun rather close to home

Some of the most enjoyable cricket you can ever play is in what we Down Under call Backyard Tests. Most celebrated Australian cricketers played these games growing up, in which a bunch of mates gather daily in summer to imitate their cricketing heroes.

These games are highly competitive affairs and often end in bruises and tears, and with parents having to adjudicate dodgy decisions and break up the odd bit of fisticuffs.

When Doug Walters was a boy, he and his brothers, Terry and Warren, made their own backyard pitch on their dairy-farming property in the NSW country town of Dungog. One day during the Christmas holidays when Doug and his younger brother Terry were on their way to the woods, Doug noticed how car and tractor wheels had flattened the anthills along the track. The boys made a close inspection of the ant beds and were amazed that the surface was rock hard. "Bet that soil would make a good cricket pitch," Doug laughed.

After lots of hard work carting the ant-bed soil home, they laid a new pitch in a specially prepared hole roughly 40 centimetres deep, six metres long and two metres wide. Directly behind this pitch was the backyard dunny. It was on that pitch of uneven bounce and exaggerated turn that Doug learnt to read length and to play the ball turning in from the off with the power and confidence he later showed in senior cricket.

The Backyard Test "teams" always included the champs of the day, such as Australia's Alan Davidson, Ray Lindwall, Richie Benaud, and England's Ken Barrington, Len Hutton, Jim Laker and John Edrich.

The Chappell Brothers - Ian, Greg and Trevor - played in the backyard with a ferocity that almost beggared belief. One hot December day, six-year-old Trevor winced and trudged off the wicket in the Chappells' North Glenelg backyard after copping a nasty blow to the left elbow, courtesy Ian's quicker ball. Fighting back tears and after his mum, Jeanne, attended to the wound, Trevor returned to the fray. His older brothers greeted Trevor's return to the wicket with a barrage of bouncers.

Champ, the family's pet Labrador, was a brilliant fieldsman and often caught the unwary player who dared hit the ball in the air. One day Greg smashed an on-drive and Champ latched on to it all right, but he had misjudged the speed of the ball, and for days he trotted about shaking his head, no doubt hearing the rattle of loose teeth.

During the "Tests", Jeanne often had to adjudicate, becoming a mediator between warring factions. Most youngsters use a soft ball in the backyard games; not so the Chappells. It was always a regular cricket ball, and the likelihood of getting a blow to the unguarded legs made them watch it closely.

There was always room for humour, but not so much for their dad, Martin, who had to appease the insurance company for all the claims relating to broken windows. Early one morning Greg clobbered an Ian Chappell full toss over the protective wire netting. The ball cleared the paling fence and shattered the neighbour's kitchen window. Jeanne and Martin were sitting at the kitchen table when 14-year-old Greg burst into the room.

"You'd better come quick, dad," he said. Martin followed Greg outside. Immediately he saw the damage and heard the angry shouts of their Italian neighbour. They ran next door, and there they stood, trying not to laugh at the sight of their irate neighbour, a conglomeration of bacon, eggs and tomatoes meandering down his pyjama pants.

Allan Border too bombarded the family's Mosman neighbours' houses with the odd smash hit. In fact, his mum and dad, Sheila and John Border, had a handyman friend on standby for emergency repairs.

One day Allan lofted a ball from his brother Brett straight through a neighbour's bathroom window. Not the elderly spinster who loved the sound of the children playing and didn't mind the odd breakage, this was another neighbour. Gingerly Allan climbed over the fence and peered through the broken window, to be confronted by a young woman having a shower. Allan always regarded that hoick to leg to be the best shot of his career.

Champ, the family's pet Labrador, was a brilliant fieldsman and often caught the unwary player who dared hit the ball in the air. One day Greg smashed an on-drive and Champ latched on to it, but he had misjudged the speed of the ball, and for days he trotted about shaking his head, no doubt hearing the rattle of loose teeth

Before the turn of the 20th century, Clarrie Grimmett played cricket with his neighbours, the Harris brothers, all of whom bowled legbreaks, in Roxburgh Street, Wellington, until the gas lamps came on to brighten the gloom and Constable Thirsk arrived to clear the urchins from his presence.

Ray Lindwall bowled in the street with his mates to illustrate to the great Bill O'Reilly, en route to his home after a day at the office, that the St George Club would do well to sign him up. And Neil Harvey played with his brothers in the cobbled lanes of Fitzroy.

Down the years thousands of Australian cricketers have played cricket in their backyards. They have included the likes of Kim and Glenn Hughes, Steve and Mark Waugh, Mike and David Hussey, and I am sure many emerging stars of today.

I was introduced to the concept of Backyard Tests in the 1950s, a time when my heroes Harvey, Davidson and Benaud prevailed Down Under. Whenever "Harvey" batted in the backyard, you had to assume a left-hander's stance, when "Davo" bowled it had to be left-handed, and you had to bowl legspin when "Benaud" came on.

It all began for me in the backyard in Chatswood, a Harvey hook from the Lane Cove River, but a move in 1955 brought the family Mallett to faraway Perth, so divorced by the tyranny of distance from Sydney on the eastern seaboard that it might as well as been the Moon. Youngsters learn to adjust to change, though, and adjust I did.

The Backyard Test came round the time Jim Laker took 19 for 90 on an Old Trafford dustbowl that might well have looked like the lunar surface. Laker's performance inspired me in those Backyard Tests. I bowled offies with a bald tennis ball and became something of a local bowling wizard to my opponents, David Cowlishaw, Evan Jones, Gavin McCoy and Don Moran.

Moran was a tall lad who was a little different to the rest. All but he turned up to Backyard Tests barefoot, wearing shots and a t-shirt. Moran was always immaculately dressed: creams, proper cricket boots, and he was always padded up, ready to bat.

We allowed him to bat first, and no amount of skill could prevent the swinging, bald tennis ball from eventually evading the bat. As soon as Moran was hit on the pad, a raucous appeal went up and five or six index fingers were immediately thrust skywards. Don Moran never did score many runs in our Backyard Test matches.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • suresh on April 20, 2013, 9:13 GMT

    Thanks Ashley ! From one of those thousands of backyard cricketers who never made it big, but carry fantastic memories, the same as those who made it big!

  • Rohan on April 20, 2013, 4:17 GMT

    those were the days.. we just needed a ball and we would play whole day long.. playing with different field restrictions depending on the number of fielders.. and those endless quarrels we had.. the best part is next day we would be back again playing..imitating our heroes.. from kapil to azhar to sachin to dravid to kumble...ohh... those were the days...

  • Nick on April 19, 2013, 3:37 GMT

    Our backyard was a paved in concrete patio with a roof, so the only place to score runs was under the patio roof straight past the bowler. Even today my best shot is a cracking straight drive.

  • adeel on April 19, 2013, 2:06 GMT

    backyard cricket is what makes great cricketers! nearly all of the great names had played some sort of backyard/street cricket. they learnt the art the natural way that came to them. not by Level 3/4 certificate carried by ex cricketers to make living! ask Andy flower which coach he had in his childhood!

    me and my brother used to play with wood piece measuring only about 5cm in width. we used to play with tape ball and once a street passer by told us politely to buy a real bat ! we played backyard cricket up until 10yrs ago. we used it as a practice for the weekend match and it helped us greatly.

  • Vinod on April 18, 2013, 23:58 GMT

    Gr8 Read!...here's my 5c backyard story. In my early teens, went to a rural place in the backwaters area of Allepey district, Kerala state (south India). Elder cousins team were a man short, I was drafted. Posted to midwicket boundary (boundary was the backwater/canal running around the oval shaped flat ground that we played), batsman hooks in the air, I catch it - YAY!, Being in my young teens and full of TV imagery that we see of the cric stars- I throw it in the air over my head to celebrate the catch, unfortunately the throw crosses the canal directly behind me and falls on the orther side. Whilst this is happening did'nt cotton on to the fact that this was a NO-ball, had to run around the canal to pick up the ball (frm the other side) and throw it in-colourful words from my cousins ringing in my ears, and the batsmen ran about 42!!....oh what memories..:)

  • Dummy4 on April 18, 2013, 17:33 GMT

    Loved reading this article. No matter who breaks the Window Mirror at home, I am to be blamed. Actually, It happens only in my presence. Haha .. I love any form of cricket and backyard cricket is really fun. Proud to be the Champion in my colony :)

  • Geoffrey on April 18, 2013, 12:23 GMT

    Don't forget the greatest batsman of all, DG Bradman, and his backyard (lone) cricket game: "At the back of our home was an 800 gallon water tank set on a round brick stand. From the tank to the laundry door was a distance of about 8 feet. Armed with a small cricket stump (which I used as a bat) I would throw a golf ball at this brick stand and try to hit the ball on the rebound. The golf ball came back at great speed and to hit it at all with the round stump was no easy task."

  • Zaccharia on April 18, 2013, 9:52 GMT

    @Marktc, Steve Cannane wrote a book about Australian backyard cricket a couple of years back and the point he made was that--until very recently--lots of Australia's premier talent honed their cricket in the backyard before joining clubs as teenagers where they played against men because there weren't the illustrious and exclusive school cricket programs like there are in the other Test nations, especially in South Africa and Sri Lanka.

  • Rahul on April 18, 2013, 4:04 GMT

    @Mary some great comments, it is intreaguing seeing the likes of Warner and Khawaja continue the things they learned in backyard cricket, Khawaja does hook and pull well and you don't have to say much about Warner's strike rate. I believe both of these guys had older brothers so they would have been toughened up nicely by them. Also Can you imagine how intense it would have been in the Waugh's backyard, would have been similar scenes as in the chappell backyard, fantastic article.